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Interfaith Celebrities: Kyra Sedgwick, Baseball's Braun-y Interfaith Rookie and a Jewish Maori Director

July 10, 2007

Closer to Judaism?

Kyra Sedgwick, star of TNT's The Closer, is the daughter of an Episcopalian father and a Jewish mother. She became more aware of her Jewish identity when her mother remarried a Jewish army vet. Kyra is married to Kevin Bacon (L), a non-practicing Catholic. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES)

The detective/mystery series, The Closer on TNT, has got the best ratings of any original comedy or drama program on basic cable. The third season premiere of The Closer on June 18, drew more viewers than all but two other shows on TV that week, including the programs on the broadcast networks.

The Closer is a fairly well-written show, but writing alone cannot explain its success. Most of the credit has to be attributed to the talent of the show's star, actress Kyra Sedgwick, who plays Los Angeles deputy police chief Brenda Johnson.

In the hands of a lesser actress, Johnson could seem like a totally phony character made up by a committee of writers to cover the demographic bases: she's from the South and sports a thick Southern drawl. She brings to her job interview skills she learned as a CIA interrogator. She has a talent for clever and piercing interrogations that "close" a case. Her toughness and personality quirks turn people off. Sounds like a closer-by-committee, doesn't it? But Sedgwick pulls it off, calling on the acting talent she's developed through nearly two decades of regular work in film.

While she has never landed a star breakthrough role, Sedgwick consistently turned in good performances in films like Born on the Fourth of July and Singles. She played Jewish characters in two movies: the interesting indie film What's Cooking and the excellent 1992 TV movie Miss Rose White. In the latter film, she plays an American Jewish woman who was has to cope with the arrival from Europe of an older sister whom everyone thought perished in the Holocaust.

Sedgwick, 42, was born in Manhattan to an upper class WASP (Episcopalian) father and a Jewish mother. Her father's family arrived in America on the Mayflower and her first cousin, once-removed, was Edie Segwick, the famous '60s model whose life was the basis for the recent film, Factory Girl.

In Abigail Pogebrin's Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, Kyra Segwick says her mother was an "anti-Semitic Jew" who didn't really care about her own Jewish background. Her father was a nominal Episcopalian who would "hypocritically" run to church "every blue moon when he thought he was dying."

Sedgwick cites the influence of her Jewish stepfather as pivotal to her eventual embrace of a Jewish identity. Her parents divorced when she was a young teen and her mother re-married a Jewish art dealer. She describes him as quite religious in his way. She says, "He often talked to me about what it meant to be a Jew, especially around Passover and it moved me. It meant being responsible for your actions, for the community, giving back."

When she was 17, she saw a movie about the Holocaust and became totally obsessed with the subject. She sought out Holocaust survivors in Manhattan and spoke with many of them. Her mother and father were taken aback by her interest. Her mother felt sorry for her and her father was sad and a bit angry that she would choose to be a Jew to the exclusion of his identity.

Sedgwick says her "morose period" ended when her Jewish stepfather, who had served in the Army and had liberated Dachau concentration camp prisoners, told her that she needed to "suck it up and move on." He didn't minimize or invalidate the horror of the Holocaust, she said. But he did make her gently see that while great evil can never be explained or forgotten, life has to go on.

Sedgwick told Pogrebin that she realizes that she looks like a blonde WASP and that has been a help in landing parts. But, still, she loves to tell people she is Jewish. Putting on a New York Jewish accent, she told Pogrebin: "I'm a New Yawk Jew! Bawn and raised!"

In 1988, she married actor Kevin Bacon, a non-practicing Catholic, in a civil ceremony and they have two children. She says, "I didn't want religion involved in any way [in the wedding] because I don't know who God is for me. The thing is, I don't really know how to pass on any kind of feelings of what it means to be a Jew to my children."

Her kids go to a Passover seder with her every year and Sedgwick says, "I think that they get some meaning from that. But I would feel hypocritical to suddenly start [practicing Judaism]--it's perhaps shameful in some way--but I would feel that suddenly to light the Hanukkah lights or do the Jewish rituals would be irresponsible in some way. I wish [however] that I had a faith and I wish that I really believed there was something other than ourselves that we could count on and listen to for guidance."

Meanwhile, from Judaism, Sedgwick says, she takes a feeling of responsibility to the world that she expresses through involvement in various volunteer organizations.

All-Stars of David

Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, which will be played today, July 10, marks the half-way point of the major league season.

In April, I wrote a column that covered the Jewish players in the major leagues as of the start of this season. (As I said in that item, I define a Jewish player as a player with at least one Jewish parent who doesn't identify with a faith other than Judaism).

Here's an update on one player and an addition to the list of Jewish major leaguers. The outstanding Jewish player of this season has to be Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. He is having what sports writers refer to as a breakthrough season. He always was a "tough out" with an uncanny ability to draw a walk. But this season he has been hitting great and his fielding has been stellar.

As I write this, Youkilis is hitting .329, with 44 RBIs and nine homers. He has been among the American League leaders in batting average all season. Unfortunately, he isn't on the All-Star team due to a quirk. The game is being played in San Francisco this year, a National League city. The National League does not have a designated hitter position, unlike the American League, and there are no designated hitters in the all-star game when the game is played in a National League stadium.

Each team can list one player for each position on the all-star ballot. At the start of this season, the Red Sox listed Dave Ortiz, their heavy-hitting designated hitter, as their first baseman on the All-Star ballot. Youkilis was left out in the cold and despite some write-in votes, he couldn't overcome the handicap of being left off the ballot. Maybe next year he will make the team.

Youkilis, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home and was a bar mitzvah, probably has the most substantial Jewish religious background of any current Jewish major leaguer.

On May 25, outfielder Ryan Braun was called up from the minors to play for the Milwaukee Brewers. Born and raised in Southern California, Braun was drafted No. 5, overall in the 2005 draft. A great hitter, he hit the cover off the ball on the Brewers' spring training squad, but was sent to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds to work on his rather weak fielding skills.

Braun's fielding still isn't great, but he has been tearing up the league with his bat since being called-up. He was named National League Rookie of the Month for June, with a .382 average, six homers, and a .716 slugging percentage. As I write this, his average has 'slipped' to a mere .350 and he has 11 homers.

Braun's father is Jewish and his mother is not Jewish. Although raised in no faith, he is clearly proud of his Jewish background as you can see in this recent interview with the The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

Also, Jason Marquis, a pitcher with the Chicago Cubs and the son of two Jewish parents, is in the midst of what could be a career year. He is 6-5 with an ERA of 3.67.

The Kiwi Cohen

Taika Waititi, director of the new comedy Eagle v. Shark, is the son of a Jewish mother and a Maori father. He sometimes goes by Taika Cohen, his mother's maiden name. REUTERS/John Schults

Eagle v. Shark, a quirky comedy from New Zealand, opened on Friday, July 6, in select theaters. The movie is about a charming young woman who takes a fancy to a rather unlikable young man. The title refers to the outfits they wear to a costume party they go to on their first date.

The film is directed by Taika Waititi, 28, who alternately bills himself as Taika Cohen. Waititi is Taika's Maori father's surname, while Cohen is his Jewish mother's last name. A multi-talented guy, Taika uses his father's name for his work as a photographer and musician. He uses "Cohen" for his work as an actor, writer and film director. He says he does this to "avoid being typecast as a Maori artist, as opposed to a Maori in the arts."

The Maori, the original Polynesian inhabitants of New Zealand, impressed the British settlers who colonized New Zealand in the 19th century. The Maoris' skin tone is relatively light and they were fierce warriors who often managed to fight the British to a standstill. These factors combined to convince many British that the Maoris must not be just another "inferior" non-white aboriginal people, but rather descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Cohen recently told a group of Los Angeles reporters that his parents didn't really practice any religion, except for observing a few Jewish holidays. He then added one odd detail: his father's Maori tribe (but not his father) practices a "homegrown" religion, called Binatu, which combines some traditional Maori religious practices with a belief in what Christians refer to as the "Old Testament" (or simply the Bible to Jews). Influenced by some 19th century British Christian missionaries, Binatu followers maintain that they are descendants of the 10 lost tribes.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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